Why Debates Should be Comprehensible by Josh You

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Victory Briefs.

Josh You is a former Victory Briefs instructor and former assistant coach at Apple Valley High School. 

This article is keeping in the spirit of Lawrence Zhou’s last post providing an affirmative defense of something most people may already agree with. This isn’t a curmudgeonly screed against spreading or anything like that. Rather, I will defend the weaker thesis that debaters should read pre-written arguments in a way that is understandable by the judge (and ideally their opponent as well) in real time, without viewing the speech doc, and judges should use the various tools at their disposal to enforce this standard.

I would guess this is something most people in the LD community would agree with in theory. In practice, many rounds fall short of this standard. I was certainly not the best flower out there at my peak, but I am confident that every judge has experienced their flow increasingly lose track of the round as debaters throw out ever more cards and off cases and don’t seem to care when you yell “clear”. High-level circuit LD rounds frequently feature unclear speeches, confusingly written tags and cards, and rapid-fire blips that are near impossible to flow and understand.

Now, the most relevant decision-maker here is indeed the judge. Debaters react to competitive incentives and will not feel the need to be comprehensible if judges do not incentivize them to. What matters is whether judges have the conviction to shape those incentives, and I hope that presenting a positive defense of adapting and enforcing a paradigm that requires comprehensibility might influence some judges’ behavior.

In terms of what judges should do, that includes yelling “clear” (and other verbal warnings like “slow” and “louder”) and giving those warnings early and often. But of course these warnings only have teeth if there are actual penalties for violating them. Docking speaks is simple and effective, at least in prelims. Ignoring arguments also has to be part of the solution, though that poses some difficulty when a judge understands neither debater on some particular issue. The important part is not how exactly judges enforce this norm but that they take it seriously, and that they adapt their paradigm and practices when the rounds they judge are still not sufficiently comprehensible. Suggestions in the comments would certainly be welcome, however.

Now I’ll present a few arguments for why debate arguments should be comprehensible in real time. I focus on ones that are relevant to every debate round. The case for comprehensibility is even stronger in many special cases such as rounds with spectators and rounds with inexperienced debaters.

Allowing incomprehensibility creates a race to the bottom

When a judge backflows from speech docs or evaluates arguments based on their understanding after reading the doc carefully after the round, this puts the judge and the opposing debater at different playing fields in terms of how much time and effort they can put into understanding arguments. Debaters have only four or five minutes of prep that must be split between two speeches, while judges can spend more time than that deciding after the round, on top of all the time they already spent thinking about the debate while the round is happening. This creates an immense strategic incentive to read arguments that can be understand by the judge after the round but will not be understood by the opponent in real time.

In addition, prep time that is left for rebuttals is very valuable, because the rebuttals are what decide the round and prep time can help you develop a clear strategy. This creates a strategic incentive to make your cases hard to understand and therefore burn up your opponent’s prep time. It seems like debaters tend to spend more time preparing for their first speech on average, which is perhaps partly a result of poor comprehensibility.

There considerations seem to apply roughly equally to both the aff and neg – many 1Ns spend close to six minutes or more reading pre-written arguments when you include cards read on-case. As a result, both debaters have an incentive to be incomprehensible if the judge allows them to be.

There are a couple of problems that can result. First, it incentivizes confusing arguments. This includes arguments that are poorly worded or explained, and arguments by obscure French philosophers who make a point of making their writing as confusing as possible. Clarity of expression is desirable as a key skill that debate teaches is how to explain things clearly and concisely, which obviously has broadly applicable benefits.

Along those lines, a standard of incomprehensibility evens the playing field between good and bad arguments. Arguments without warrants and arguments that don’t make sense are ipso facto harder to understand. Without requiring comprehensibility, debaters can win rounds with totally nonsense arguments that a judge has no hope of understanding in real time but can maybe use to piece together a claim after the round. I should note that this does implicate the slightly different paradigmatic issue of what standard of comprehensibility judges use to evaluate arguments that they spend several minutes reading after the round. Nonetheless, requiring debaters to be understandable would be pushing in the right direction for argument quality. The educational benefits of doing so are self-evident.

Comprehensibility creates a limiting principle on the amount of content in the round

If debaters need to be clear and understandable, that puts a cap on the amount of words that can be spoken. One can fit an arbitrarily large amount of text in a Word document, and a diminished standard of comprehensibility encourages debaters to push the limits by being less clear and not pausing enough for punctuation, emphasis, and transitions. Taken to the furthest extreme, if debaters do not have to be understandable, they could “read” far more text during their constructives than is actually humanly possible.

Comprehensibility is the only feasible limiting principle. An actual words-per-minute limit may be desirable, but is obviously impractical to enforce, as is any standard for enunciation other than “enunciate enough so that I can understand you”. A judge cannot reliably distinguish between “somewhat too unclear to understand” and “quite a bit too unclear to understand”.

Note that not all words are created equally. One idea can be more complex than another even while requiring the same number of words or syllables to express it, and as a result needs to be explained more slowly for the judge to understand in real time. Higher word economy may also require slower delivery to be understandable. As such, comprehensibility is a limit on the amount of content (number of words weighted by difficulty of understanding) as well as a limit on raw word count.

Content is good but too much content can be a bad thing. If there are too many arguments, debaters will not be able to digest much of what their opponents say. This leads to mutual confusion, which reduces the quality of debates.

Additionally, extemporaneous arguments have to be understandable no matter what the standard is for pre-written arguments, so a lower standard for pre-written arguments increases the ratio of pre-written/constructive content versus extemporaneous/rebuttal content. This is a recipe for poor clash and strategies driven by who makes the worst concessions rather than who prevails over contestation of arguments.[1]

Now, arguably LD rounds should have more content. Many LD arguments would benefit from more development and longer explanations. Also, policy rounds have much more content, and they aren’t obviously worse than LD rounds. But the best way to accomplish this would be lengthening speech times, and perhaps prep time as well, not by cramming ever more content into the same amount of time.

Comprehensibility is aesthetically desirable and prevents debate from descending into absurdity

One thing that I haven’t talked about in this article is whether debaters might have a hard time understanding their opponent because they aren’t clear or loud enough, even though their cases might be perfectly understandable in text form. This is because I assume that debaters who can’t understand their opponents verbally can just follow along with the speech doc. In this scenario there are no harms resulting from strategic incentives. And I suppose most of the harms from the previous points, or at least point 1, could be resolved by the judge looking at the speech doc during the speech and committing to not open it again afterwards, without needing the debater to actually be clear.

Nonetheless it seems problematic to view the spoken delivery of pre-written arguments as a mere formality, with the real exchange of ideas happening via email. There are perhaps various advantages and disadvantages of purely written debates versus spoken debates. But a debate where the actual debate is happening via text, accompanied by superfluous mouth noises? That would be ridiculous. Come on.


[1] I think this is the more important subpoint in favor of #2. People can generally read in their head faster than they speak, and that may be true even when spreading at high speeds. But debaters need enough time to cover their opponent’s arguments, not just understand them. I guess you could maybe solve this in a weird way by lengthening speech times for rebuttals or shortening them for constructives with the understanding that the constructives will be much faster than the rebuttals. But that would be weird – see section 3.